The random thoughts of an architect-turned- lawyer from the deep south living in Washington, DC...

Saturday, June 11, 2005

The past and the future while enjoying the present.

Yesterday was a day of "firsts". I took my first steps into a completed building I designed, I spent my first day in court listening to oral arguments and I took my first riverboat cruise along the Potomac.

My morning was about the past. When I chose to leave the profession of architecture, it was a hard decision to make. Not only is it hard to turn your back on such an expansive time period in your fairly short life, it is also difficult to know you are walking away from things you put your own blood, sweat, and tears into (and a hell of a lot of 'em). I worked on two commercial building projects in the area of the courthouse and for some time have been meaning to check out their progress. In heading over to the courthouse, I arrived a little early so I could mull around the neighborhood. To my excitement, I noticed that the parking garage for Carlyle Place was open. After maneuvering a parking garage I knew pretty well, I took the elevator and ascended into the lobby. I will admit that it was a pretty surreal experience to step out of the elevator and see the fruits of your labor for the first time. As I looked around the lobby, I saw elements of all of my old co-workers and their style. I saw Michael in the atrium lighting, I saw Amy in the canopy out front. I saw James in his signature curved wall. I did not really see myself. Perhaps it is hard to see through your own eyes. Or, perhaps I just was not there. Either way, I realized (as I have many times this past year) that I did the right thing by leaving. While this was a nice moment in my morning, it could not overshadow my excitement to spend my day in court. Although some may disagree, that rare passing moment of pride in my design contribution was not enough upon which to build my career.

My day became about the future. I got to the courthouse early to hear some of the criminal proceedings before our cross motion for summary judgement would be argued. I knew which judge was hearing our argument, so I found his courtroom and found myself a seat. The courthouse itself is beautiful, which I had to notice as the former architect. I was also intrigued by the people gathering inside. I wondered where they came from and how they fit into the system. I had just enough time to people watch before the "Oyez, oyez". I lost track of all of the cases I got to watch, but the ones in the morning were criminal hearings and sentencing. I learned a lot, as often times, the judge would have to explain to the defendants what decisions he was making and why. In doing this, he got rid of the "legalese" that lawyers and judges tend to use to muddify simple situations. It was nice to hear it laid out simply. (Wait, did I just put myself on an intellectual level of some of the criminals I saw yesterday?)

I was surprised by the amount of defendants that did not know English. At ALL! I saw a gentleman who had stolen (from the mail) and activated and sold credit cards raising debts to the tune of $401 million. When judge asked if he had anything to say, he elaborated on how difficult life in his country had been. To this, judge responded that we all know America brings freedoms but you are not going to come into our country and take those freedoms away by messing with our postal system. Judge discussed the policy reasons for imposing a strict sentence. He talked about a person's need to take comfort in a system by which they can put a $0.37 stamp on an envelope and send it across the country without fear that it will be intercepted and used for other purposes.

I also saw the government attempting to deport a woman, which her attorney says was solely because they could not get to her husband and therefore, wanted someone to pay. Regardless, since it was a statute of limitations issue, the whole argument turned on the exact point at which a person becomes "naturalized." The woman had allegedly falsified information on her naturalization papers. However, the government argued that this is not a crime until the person actually becomes naturalized. Since the ten year statute of limitations begins to toll when a crime is committed, they needed that "crime" to be later. If the crime was when she lied, it was too late to charge her. This unraveled a bundle of questions and explanations of the process of naturalization to decide at which point it is legal (receipt of a certificate, signing of a paper, the ceremony, etc.)

The most "emotional" case on the criminal docket was that of the convicted sex offender. This man had been found with child pornography on his computer. His attorney really did seem to be fighting for him. (It was one of those "I could never do that" type of moments.) Anyway, his attorney provided pretty weak arguments in an attempt to lessen his sentence. On the other hand, I am not sure a strong argument exists for that situation. It was surely a plea to the judges emotions. It was the "he's a changed man and regrets everything, it will never happen again" argument. Attorney also brought TWENTY of his closest family members and friends into the courtroom to show that he has a support system. (Might have helped more had he also told them how to dress for court...i.e. having a character witness don a halter top and spike heels may not be the best bet.) The judge gave him the opportunity to speak, which I don't think helped or hurt his case. This was surely a case of judge already having decided the sentence with no possibility of being swayed. Furthermore, attorney's argument rested on the levels of sex offense. He kept pointing out the difference between "merely" looking at pictures on the computer or being the one who took those pictures, or even going as far as to act on those impulses. He begged the court to take into account that his client fell into the first category and therefore deserved leniency. Judge simply said "yeah, if he fell into any other category, he would be here on different charges that had different sentencing guidlines." Judge never looked him in the eye as he went on about how disgusting and reprehensible his actions were.

The civil cases were interesting to see how the rules are put into play. I was most surprised by the number of BAD lawyers. I felt like being one year into law school I could have done better than some of those guys. I will sum up the civil proceedings with my favorite argument of the day: "Well your honor, you know we are not here today because we want to be. We filed in state court and they removed here to federal court. Under Erie Railroad v. Tompkins (yes, he did actually bring this up), you have to apply Virginia state law even though we are here in federal court. Personally, I think that it makes much more sense for state courts to apply state law." Judge interrupts: "Sir, I believe I am more than capable of hearing this case and applying the correct law. That IS what I do for a living."

My evening was about the present. A friend of mine invited me to go with his firm (and their summer associates) on a river cruise along the Potomac. I have wanted to do this for four years now and it was worth the wait. It was a very relaxing enjoyable evening (helped that everything was paid for.) Watching the sunset from a boat with the various monuments and memorials all around really made me realize how lucky I am to be here. It was the perfect ending and reflection on a great day.